Alexander Graham Bell was never a fan of multitasking. He felt that true creativity comes from a single-minded concentration on the issue under consideration and that any other thoughts would only take you further away from your goal.
Psychological research, until recently, seemed to agree with him, showing that we’re more efficient and accurate when we keep our minds firmly on track. However, a couple of eye-catching new studies have called this assumption into question, at least when it comes to the kind of creative tasks that were so close to Bell’s heart. When you’re trying to come up with new ideas, a sharp focus might actually backfire and a distraction of some sort could actually increase your chances of finding a novel solution to your problem.
This is because our minds often become stuck in a rut, meaning that we spend far too much time concentrating on the first ideas we thought of, rather than coming up with some truly novel solutions. This phenomenon is known as cognitive fixation, and many psychologists now consider it to be the principle barrier to true creativity.
To find out whether multitasking can actually help people break out of a rut, Jackson Lu and his team from Colombia Business School used a common laboratory test of creativity. The participants in this study had to think of as many uses as possible for a common object, such as a kitchen bowl, within a fixed amount of time.
The participants then had to find alternative uses for a brick and a toothpick. The only difference was that some were asked to do so in blocks, listing all the uses for a brick first before listing all the uses of a toothpick, while others were asked to alternate between the two.
According to Bell’s opinion that immersed concentration is better for creativity, you’d expect that the first group would have performed better, but this wasn’t the case. While they might have believed that they were on a roll, the reality was that without the breaks afforded by the continual task switching, their progress was limited.
From the sheer number of ideas that they produced to the perceived novelty of their ideas, the multitaskers performed much better.
For more evidence, the team next looked at a test of convergent thinking, in which you’re given three words and you have to think of a common linking word. This test is meant to measure your ability to find the associations between apparently unconnected concepts, and unlike the previous task, you’re looking for a single answer that comes in a single flash of insight.
Once again, some of the participants were asked to consider two problems simultaneously, by switching their attention between the two, while others were asked to look at them in sequence. The end results were even more striking than the team’s first experiment, with 51% of the multitaskers solving both problems compared to just 14% who looked at them sequentially.
Perhaps the biggest benefits can be found in group brainstorms – something that we’ve all been involved in at one time or another – which often involve a lot of talking and not much innovation.
The problem is that besides facing the cognitive fixation of each individual member, the group as a whole becomes distracted by one person’s idea rather than considering the ideas of others. This means that teams working together often produce fewer ideas that individuals who are working independently. “There are a lot of findings showing that working as a group is not very efficient, and even a tiny improvement would have a big impact,” says Ut Na Sio from the Education University of Hong Kong.
By working with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University, Sio has shown that forcing groups of students to multitask (by switching between two problems) can break those dynamics, leading to more creative solutions to questions about the ways to improve the campus, including potential ideas to increase the students’ physical activity or measures to increase access for disabled people. Importantly, the benefits seemed to grow over time, so the longer the brainstorming was, the more advantageous it was to switch between tasks.
It doesn’t need too much thinking to see how you might put these findings to immediate use. If you’re struggling to think of a title for your project or the name of a new product, you might have been tempted to devoting a fixed amount of time to thinking about it. However, this research would suggest that you’d be better off keeping a notepad next to your computer and jotting down new solutions while working on other tasks.
At its simplest, this research might just be another excuse to take a much-needed break. When you’re working on tasks that would benefit from creative thinking, take regular breaks to refresh your approach.